Credit: Alison Yin/EdSource
University of California at Berkeley students on campus in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union.

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As a college professor and San Francisco public school educator of 17 years, I have spent years devoted to making schools “better.”

I once believed that preparing students for college was the most important work we could do — on some level it worked. Students improved their literacy skills and were admitted to universities, their families and teachers beaming with pride as they walked down graduation aisles. Schools, after all, were supposed to be where poor and working class youth would be given the opportunity to “uplift their communities.”

I can now admit that we are wrong in what we tell young people about what it takes to live meaningful and deliberate lives, as we start another school year in denial of the reality that schools are not viable institutions for wellness. For decades, we have been schooling our young people into an individualistic, hierarchical society that prepares them to do one of two things — accept their place in the working class or become rightful supervisors of the working class, never to disrupt this paradigm.

We began the 2022-23 school year with increased rates of youth suicidality, a decline in the teaching force, and revamped active-shooter training. We sit in professional development meetings about self-care knowing we will again be stretched beyond our limits covering for vacancies in our schools over preparing lessons. We spend weeks of instructional time preparing students to perform well on tests that will supposedly dictate their life path while graduating youth into the most racially stratified and class-divided society of our time. I would argue that this catastrophe is by design, and schools (and our attachment to them as sites of freedom) are a major player in the crisis.

Millionaire and major school funder John D. Rockefeller once proclaimed, “I don’t want a nation of thinkers; I want a nation of workers.” Decades later, a NASA study revealed that schools are incredibly effective in “killing” young people’s creativity — a fast-tracked means toward a robust workforce.

In the study, 98% of 5-year-old children fell into the “genius category of imagination.” This number dropped to 12% for 15-year-olds and to 2% for adults. What happens when we prioritize test preparation over creativity and standardized curriculum over empathetic connection?

If that’s not enough, we’ve believed that our grueling hours would pay off and give students access to sustainable lives through higher education. The number of high school graduates enrolling in college has dropped from 70% in 2016 to 63% in 2020. Additionally, more than 4 in 10 people surveyed with bachelor’s degrees do not believe the benefits of their schooling experiences outweigh the cost.

The kicker: There are about 30 million college-aged young people in the United States and only about half as many undergraduate slots in American universities. We simply do not have enough space in our colleges and universities to educate our youth — particularly in California.

We must begin the courageous process of decentralizing college as the primary option after high school and focus on careers and ways of being that actually lead to sustainability. We should invest in education that supports young people to see themselves as an extension of all living things — funding programs that support self-sustenance and connection with nature.

We need to invest in paid career pathways for youth immediately after high school so that their passions aren’t compromised by their fear of hunger and houselessness.

If we want to thrive, we must lay to rest the idea that quality education can only happen in universities and instead invest in young people in innovative ways. Each time that we centralize empathetic connection, creativity and a sense of belonging in spaces with them, we are undoing the damage of schooling.

•••

Tiffani Marie (@tiffanimarieTRA) is a professor of teacher education and ethnic studies at San Jose State University, co-director of The Institute for Regenerative Futures and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpED Project. 

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  1. Ed 2 months ago2 months ago

    100% agree. Tiffani, I hope you or someone like you will be Superintendent of Education.

  2. Chris Stampolis 2 months ago2 months ago

    No, Tiffani Marie, your premise is incorrect. There are plenty of community college spots for students across California. Further, students of color are earning spots at the highest levels of state history in the CSU and UC systems, eradicating white power forever. Your statement is numerically incorrect that "We simply do not have enough space in our colleges and universities to educate our youth — particularly in California.". Lots of room to … Read More

    No, Tiffani Marie, your premise is incorrect. There are plenty of community college spots for students across California. Further, students of color are earning spots at the highest levels of state history in the CSU and UC systems, eradicating white power forever. Your statement is numerically incorrect that “We simply do not have enough space in our colleges and universities to educate our youth — particularly in California.”. Lots of room to enroll in 2-year college to earn a guaranteed transfer spot to CSU an/or UC.

    Additionally, Latino and Latina students are rising. They are earning Associate’s Degrees and Bachelor’s Degrees at an extremely high level, dominating the current CSU system in 2022 for enrollment *and* for graduation.

    Your perspective is your right, as it is my right to call you out for inaccuracy. Always strikes me as massively hypocritical that as soon as Brown students achieve smothering, crushing success, the value definition for a degree declines among the power brokers who know they must genuflect to the new academic majority. To the books!

  3. Ed 2 months ago2 months ago

    100% agree. Tiffani, I hope you or someone like you will be Secretary of Education

  4. Kathleen J Leal 2 months ago2 months ago

    Do we have consensus that k-12 education is more than a means to a college end? What is it meant to accomplish? Does what it means to be educated change with the district? Whether it's charter? Whether it's high income? If education is one thing at k-6 and another 7-12, what is that? What if K-8 was foundational liberal humanities - history, art philosophy, science, math, literature, and 9-12 was open for the … Read More

    Do we have consensus that k-12 education is more than a means to a college end? What is it meant to accomplish? Does what it means to be educated change with the district? Whether it’s charter? Whether it’s high income? If education is one thing at k-6 and another 7-12, what is that? What if K-8 was foundational liberal humanities – history, art philosophy, science, math, literature, and 9-12 was open for the parents to determine with their child the best course of action- traditional 9-12 or go for another program removing all the college prep electives like vocational, going directly into community college for the math/science/engineering fields, work internships that don’t require a degree, certification programs at the community college or private schools in design, robotics, sales, manufacturing, etc. and while we’re at it remove the max working hours for kids who want to get their foot in the door and learn the ropes or opt to work.

    College is the required end for less than 30% of the professions yet 70% enroll and half drop out. What are we defining as a success? When students are empowered to follow their skill set at 9th grade, it allows them to take advantage developing skill sets and pivoting to different areas without incurring a $27K tuition tab. The students bear the cost for our virtue signaling ‘college is for everyone’ mantra and we have a generation of failure to launch kids at 26 who took are saddled with the responsibility of debt without a clue of what they are even good at.

  5. Jeff 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thanks for saying that. I think you are completely right, but I would add that underlying the problem you describe is our society's seriously unequal distribution of wealth. Granted, a doctor should make more than an auto mechanic, but 10X more? An engineer should make more than an electrician, but 5X more? Pushing everyone to go to college is a way of trying, at least, to acknowledge everyone's equal worth. It's easy … Read More

    Thanks for saying that. I think you are completely right, but I would add that underlying the problem you describe is our society’s seriously unequal distribution of wealth. Granted, a doctor should make more than an auto mechanic, but 10X more? An engineer should make more than an electrician, but 5X more?

    Pushing everyone to go to college is a way of trying, at least, to acknowledge everyone’s equal worth. It’s easy (and true) to tell students that it’s “perfectly okay” to be a welder, but when one of their college educated, accountant peers is able afford a nice house and a new car every 3 years when they can’t, is “it’s okay to be a welder” really good advice?